Archaeologists have unearthed and excavated an area in Thomas Jefferson’s plantation home that was once the living quarters of Sally Hemings – a slave with whom he is believed to have had six children.
Her room, which was built in 1809 and was 14 feet, 8 inches wide and 13 feet long, was next to Thomas Jefferson’s room.
However the area was turned into a bathroom for tourists in 1941.
It was only recently when historians analyzed a description of Sally’s room by one of Jefferson’s grandsons they they concluded it was hiding under a modern day bathroom at the Monticello home.
Archaeologists then found Hemings’ room including a brick hearth and fireplace, the structure for a stove and even the original flooring.
The room was unearthed at Jefferson’s Monticello mansion, his primary plantation home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Sally Hemings (1773-1835) was a slave at the estate, and according to her son Madison Hemings, Sally Hemings’ father was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles.
She became Thomas Jefferson’s property as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774 and came with her mother Elizabeth Hemings in 1776.
She had six children, who are believed to be have been fathered by Thomas Jefferson after the death of his wife Martha Jefferson including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings.
In September 1802, political journalist James T. Callender, a disaffected former ally of Jefferson, wrote in a Richmond newspaper that Jefferson had for many years ‘kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves.’
‘Her name is Sally,’ Callender continued, adding that Jefferson had ‘several children’ by her.
Although there had been rumors of a sexual relationship between Jefferson and an enslaved woman before 1802, Callender’s article spread the story widely.
It was taken up by Jefferson’s Federalist opponents and was published in many newspapers during the remainder of Jefferson’s presidency.
Jefferson’s policy was to offer no public response to personal attacks, and he apparently made no explicit public or private comment on this question (although a private letter of 1805 has been interpreted by some individuals as a denial of the story). Sally Hemings left no known accounts.
While Hemings was never technically a free woman, she was allowed to leave Monticello following Jefferson’s death to live with her sons Madison and Eston Hemings in Charlottesville.
It is believed that Jefferson kept his six children as slaves until they came of age, at which point he freed them one by one.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the declaration of independence and went on to become the third president of the United States.
Gardiner Hallock, the director of restoration for the Monticello plantation, told NBC News: ‘The discovery gives us a sense of how enslaved people were living.
‘Some of Sally’s children may have been born in this room.
‘It’s important because it shows Sally as a human being – a mother, daughter, and sister – and brings out the relationships in her life.’
While Hallock says that the evidence showed that Sally Hemings lived a better lifestyle than other enslaved people on the plantation, her room didn’t have windows and would have been dark and damp.
Although there aren’t many accounts of Sally Hemings, one account by an enslaved blacksmith named Isaac Granger Jefferson said that Sally Hemings was ‘mighty near white…very handsome, long straight hair down her back.’
Historians analyzed a description of Sally’s room by one of Jefferson’s grandsons, who described the room as being in the house’s South Wing.
Following this, archaeologists decided to dig the area that was once a bathroom.
Fraser Neiman, the director of archaeology at the Monticello home, said that digging Hemings’ room revealed a brick hearth and fireplace, the structure for a stove and even the original flooring.
The room is being restored, and will eventually be open for public viewings.
Monticello’s Community Engagement Officer, Gayle Jessup White, descends from both the Hemings and Jefferson families – Sally Hemings was White’s great-great-great-great aunt.
White first learned about her ancestry when she was a child, and she has mixed feelings about it.
She told NBC News: ‘As an African American descendant, I have mixed feelings – Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder.’
White says that it’s because of this that the local African American community has not always embraced Monticello, but through her role, she hopes to tell the story of not just Thomas Jefferson, but the enslaved people and their families as well.
The excavation and restoration are part of The Mountaintop Project, a $35-million effort to restore the Monticello room to how it looked at the time Jefferson lived there, and to also tell the story of the free and enslaved people who lived and worked at the plantation.
The grounds provide tours of the homes, with some tours that focus on the experience of slaves, and a Hemings family tour.
As part of the restoration project, in 2015 Monticello unveiled Mulberry Row, which included the restoration of two slave-related buildings: An iron storehouse and the Hemings cabin, which were visited by more than 100 descendants of enslaved families in a tree-planting ceremony to commemorate the buildings.
It is believed that Jefferson kept his six children as slaves until they came of age, at which point he freed them one by one. Hemings, however, was never freed.
Since then critics and scholars have been attempting to reconcile the image of Jefferson as a founding father who penned the words ‘all men are created equal’ with a man who would keep a mistress as a slave and enslave his own children with her, for a period of time.
These conclusions are complicated by the fact that Hemings left no written account of the relationship herself, perhaps meaning that she was not literate.
Hemings is mentioned occasionally in Jefferson’s own writings, but not in a way that distinguishes her from the rest of his family.
It is known that Hemings was born in 1773 and served Jefferson at his plantation in Monticello, Virginia, where she acted as nursemaid to several of his children with wife Martha.
Jefferson is thought to have started his relationship with Hemings following Martha’s death in in 1782 and likely continued it until his death in 1826.
While Heming was never technically a free woman, she was allowed to leave Monticello following his death to live with sons Madison and Eston Hemings in Charlottesville.